Wednesday, February 05, 2003

Peter Galbraith on Iraqi Kurdistan

Subject: Peter Galbraith on Iraqi Kurdistan
Date: Wed, 05 Feb 2003 21:44:00 -0500
From: Jeff Weintraub
To: XX

Hi XX,

This article (part of a series on the question "After Saddam, What?") appeared in the Boston Globe (12/15/2002), so maybe you've seen it already. If not, I recommend it. This is a compact, intelligent, and illuminating account of the Iraqi Kurdish "problem"--past and present. We'll all be hearing more about this soon.

The author, Peter Galbraith (the son of John Kenneth Galbraith) is one of the few (minor) heroes of this whole miserable business. In the late 1980s, when he was a staff person for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, working for Sen. Claiborne Pell of New Jersey, he brought back reports of the ongoing "Anfal" campaign in Iraqi Kurdistan, including the large-scale use of poison gas against Kurdish civilians. The information that he and some other staffers brought back helped lead to Senate passage of the Prevention of Genocide Act (1988), which called for sanctions against Iraq until it stopped murdering Kurdish civilians--and which, as far as I know, was the only serious official condemnation of this atrocity by any governmental body in any country. (There may have been others, but if so I don't know of any.) The Reagan administration was able to block the passage of this bill by the House, but its passage by the Senate was enough to attract a certain amount of international
attention, and it was denounced by the Arab League.

(And around that time, the Iraqi regime stopped using poison gas in Kurdistan. Coincidence? Well, just possibly there was a connection.)

In 1991, after the Kurds had captured tons of files from Iraqi secret police and Ba'ath party offices in northern Iraq, Galbraith was one of the people who arranged to have these files taken out of the country (in the face of obstructionism by the Bush I administration) to the US. Like some other mass-murdering regimes one could mention, the Iraqi Ba'ath regime tends to keep extensive records of its atrocities (including videos of tortures and rapes, and that sort of thing). So these files provided documentation for the reports about the mass murders in Iraqi Kurdistan compiled by Human Rights Watch and others.

But maybe you know all this already. A lot of this was also discussed in a remarkably good New Yorker article by Jeffrey Goldberg in the fall of 2002, "The Great Terror." If you didn't see that, then I recommend it, too. (And the Anfal is also one of the topics discussed in Kanan Makiya's brilliant, powerful, and moving book, Cruelty and Silence ... which, if you've never read it, I absolutely recommend.)

Yours in struggle,

P.S. By the way, I referred to the "Anfal" campaign assuming you would know what that meant, but in case I'm wrong ... this was the official Iraqi government title for the 1987-1988 operation in Iraqi Kurdistan inthe course of which more than 100,000 Iraqi civilians were systematically murdered--many of them gassed, but most of them killed by more "conventional" means. (The figure of 100,000 killed is probably a lower limit, since they may not have captured all the relevant Iraqi government files.) Did I ever mention to you the terrific book by two Guardian-type left-wing British journalists, Andrew & Patrick Cockburn, Out of the Ashes: The Resurrection of Saddam Hussein? One of the many (grimly) interesting vignettes in that book concerns the Iraqi general in charge of conducting the Anfal campaign, Ali Hassan Al-Majid--nicknamed "Chemical Ali" in Iraq. (I've also seen this incident reported elsewhere, but the Cockburns' account is the best, and they speak with exceptional authority on these matters. Incidentally, I know that at least one of them, Andrew Cockburn, has explicitly opposed the coming war in print, so they're not exactly propagandists for the Bush family.) After the creation of a "safe haven" in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, Chemical Ali was meeting with some Kurdish officials in Baghdad, who said they wanted to locate the remains of victims of the Anfal campaign. One of them mentioned a figure of about 180,000 dead civilians. "Chemical" Ali exploded, saying that this was a ridiculous exaggeration--it couldn't have been much more than 100,000! Well, that's all right, then, I guess.


Boston Globe Magazine
December 15, 2002

After Saddam, What?

The Wild Card in a Post-Saddam Iraq

They've been gassed by Saddam Hussein and betrayed by the United States. But today, the Kurds have economic prosperity and representative government in northern Iraq - and they intend to keep it.

By Peter W. Galbraith

In Zawita, Iraq, an army is preparing for an American invasion. Shouldering shiny new AK-47s, camouflage-clad recruits march smartly around a parade ground. Nearby flies the tricolor flag with sun emblem of the land they are pledged to defend. As the recruits pass the reviewing stand, they shout out its name: Kurdistan.

Kurdistan is the wild card in any US plans for Iraq. Protected by American F-16s since a failed uprising at the end of the Gulf War, the Kurds today govern a Vermont-sized territory inside Iraq, stretching along Iraq's northern border with Turkey, from Syria to Iran. With five airfields, an extensive internal road system, and some territory only 100 miles from Baghdad, Kurdistan offers US military planners a potential base for operations. Unlike reluctant American allies Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the Kurds have no hesitation about supporting the United States in a war against a dictator whom they hold responsible for the murder of upward of 100,000 of their compatriots.

Most important, the Kurds possess considerable military assets. The army that I watched training in July in Zawita is under the command of Masood Barzani, the leader of one of two Kurdish political parties that divide the north into almost equal-sized mini-states. Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party can field 65,000 disciplined, albeit lightly armed, troops. Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, commands a roughly comparable force from his base in Sulamanyeh, a city close to the Iranian border. By contrast, Afghanistan's Northern Alliance - to whom the Kurdish militia is often compared - had only 5,000 troops at the start of last year's campaign to oust the Taliban.

Kurdistan is home to nearly 4 million people, virtually none of whom wants to be Iraqi. For President George W. Bush, who speaks of a democratic and unified Iraq to follow a deposed Saddam Hussein, this creates a dilemma: How do you build a democratic Iraq when a sizable part of its 22 million people want to have nothing to do with the country?

Kurdish dreams are Turkey's nightmare. It took Turkey 15 years, from 1984 to 1999, to defeat an uprising in its Kurdish-majority southeastern region. The Turkish military fears that creation of a sovereign Kurdistan in northern Iraq could rekindle separatist sentiment in Turkey and has warned it will intervene militarily if the Kurds of Iraq proclaim their independence. Iran and Syria, each having substantial Kurdish minorities, are happy to support Iraq's Kurds as a means of destabilizing Hussein but fearful of them being too successful. And many Arabs see American support for the Kurds as part of a larger US-led conspiracy to weaken the Arab world by breaking up Iraq, seeing no inconsistency in their support of Palestinian self-determination while denying the same right to Iraq's Kurds.

To keep Kurdistan from destabilizing the region, Bush must win the confidence of the Kurds themselves. It will not be easy. He will have to persuade the Kurds that their future should be linked to a country that gassed them and committed genocide against them. He will need to work with Kurdish leaders, with a history of bad blood between them, who are now trying to cooperate but could fall out over the spoils of an allied victory. And he will have to overcome a legacy of American cynicism and indifference in its dealings with the Kurds, not the least of which was his father's decision to walk away from a Kurdish rebellion that he encouraged as president.

A separate Kurdistan already exists, and its people will not willingly give it up. A few months ago, I traveled to northern Iraq to find out what Kurdistan is like today and to talk to its leaders. It was my ninth visit since 1984, but my first in nine years. Like others in the Middle East, Kurds begin their discussions of the future with the past. But they don't revisit centuries-old history. They start with the reign of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

In September of 1980, Hussein launched a surprise invasion of Iran, anticipating that revolutionary turmoil and the ongoing crisis over Iran's detention of American hostages would lead to the quick collapse of its much larger neighbor. It proved a fatal miscalculation, producing an eight-year war that cost more than 1 million lives. By 1983, Iran was beginning to overpower Iraqi defenses, making use of human-wave assaults by troops who were told that dying on the front line guaranteed prompt entry into paradise. To counter these assaults, the Iraqis began using mustard gas and, as the war progressed, developed and began using more lethal nerve gases - potent agents that, used in even minuscule doses, produce paralysis and death.

In 1987, Hussein turned his chemical weapons on the Kurds, who the year before had embarked on one of their periodic rebellions against rule from Baghdad. The effects were devastating. In a single attack on March 16, 1988, on the eastern city of Halabja, more than 5,000 Kurdish men, women, and children died horrific deaths as nerve gas seeped into cellars where hundreds huddled or caught up with those trying to outrun the gas on the city's dusty streets.

A few months later, I encountered the survivors of what proved to be the final gas attacks on the Kurds. On August 25, 1988 - five days after the Iran-Iraq war ended - Iraq launched a massive attack on Kurdish villages along its border with Turkey. Within days, 65,000 refugees had crossed into Turkey.

As the Iraq expert for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I was asked by the then chairman, Senator Claiborne Pell, to investigate. Joined by Chris Van Hollen (then a junior committee staffer and now a congressman-elect from Maryland), I visited the refugees along Turkey's rugged 207-mile border with Iraq.

By the time we arrived in early September, some refugees were sheltered in Turkish-run tent cities while others remained in the open in desolate high mountain valleys fringed with patches of snow. They seemed numb as they described how helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft flew over their homes, dropping "quiet" bombs. Smoke smelling of "burnt almonds" or "rotten onions" wafted across the landscape. People dropped dead. Those brave enough to venture close to the corpses noticed "blue lips" and sometimes small amounts of blood. Because these were not the first such attacks, the survivors knew better than to touch the corpses; nerve agents can kill on contact. Men fled, leaving the bodies of their wives and young children to scavenging animals.

Before we left for Turkey, Senators Pell, Al Gore, and Jesse Helms had introduced legislation to impose comprehensive economic sanctions on Iraq for its use of chemical weapons. The Prevention of Genocide Act of 1988 unanimously passed the US Senate just one day after being introduced. Van Hollen's and my report on the gassings was intended to boost the bill's prospects in the House of Representatives.

Kurdish leaders knew all about the legislation. For the first time, it seemed the United States was poised to take action on their behalf. Indeed, at one refugee camp, Van Hollen and I were feted with an enthusiastic pro-American demonstration.

The Kurds were to be disappointed. The Reagan administration, which had been providing Iraq with $700 million a year in credit guarantees, saw Hussein's Iraq both as a potential security partner in the volatile Persian Gulf and as a promising market for American products and investment.

Secretary of State George Shultz denounced Iraq's use of chemical weapons, but others in the administration seemed more concerned about the Iraqi reaction should the sanctions become law. (Senate passage of the Pell legislation produced the biggest anti-American demonstration in Baghdad in 20 years.) Working with the Republican House leadership and some House Democrats, the administration was able to water down and ultimately defeat the Prevention of Genocide Act.

While past error is no indication of future action, the Kurds have not forgotten that Secretary of State Colin Powell was then the national security adviser who orchestrated Ronald Reagan's decision to give Hussein a pass for gassing the Kurds. Dick Cheney, then a prominent Republican congressman and now vice president and the Bush administration's leading Iraq hawk, could have helped push the sanctions legislation but did not.

In the event of a new war with Iraq, the Kurds worry that Hussein may again target them with weapons of mass destruction. Even if the United States suppresses Iraqi air power, Iraqi artillery can still fire shells loaded with chemical weapons or biological agents into Kurdish cities, most of which are just a few miles from the Iraqi front lines that separate the Kurdish-controlled region from the rest of Iraq.

American troops would arrive in the region vaccinated for smallpox and anthrax and equipped with protective clothing for chemical weapons. The Kurds have no such protection. Dr. Ali Said, dean of the Sulamanyeh University Medical School in the Kurdish-controlled city of the same name, studied the medical consequences of the chemical-weapons attacks in the 1980s. He believes a poison-gas attack on Sulamanyeh on the scale of the one carried out against Halabja in 1988 would kill 200,000 people.

In August of this year, Kurdish leaders met with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and spoke to Cheney on a video hookup at his secure location. They emphasized that 3.8 million people live in Kurdish-controlled territory and asked the United States to provide the Kurds with antibiotics, smallpox vaccines, and chemical-weapons protective gear. As of press time, they had received no answer.

I did not first go to Kurdistan to ferret out atrocities. But I found them at almost every turn.

In the 1980s, many Americans considered the Iran-Iraq war little more than a far-off affair between two despicable regimes, but strategists worried about the consequences should either side achieve a decisive victory. The Reagan administration wanted neither a triumphant Iraq dominating the Persian Gulf nor a victorious Iran spreading its Islamic revolution to Iraq's Shiite Muslims and potentially threatening the pro-Western monarchies on the Arabian peninsula. Thus, at different times the White House helped the Iraqis and the Iranians stave off defeat.

The Kurds were a key factor in the conflict. An ancient people who speak an Indo-European language most akin to Persian, the Kurds never accepted being part of Iraq, an artificial state formed by the merger of three disparate Ottoman provinces as part of the World War I peace settlement. At various intervals in the 20th century, the Kurds took advantage of perceived weakness in Baghdad to stage uprisings aimed at winning greater autonomy or even independence. Most of these rebellions were put down with considerable brutality.

Kurdish grievances in an Arab-dominated Iraq became more intense when Saddam Hussein took effective control of the country in 1969. The central tenet of Hussein's ruling Baath Party is a belief in the existence of a single Arab nation stretching from the Indian Ocean to Morocco's Atlantic coast. To enhance Iraq's claim to lead this Arab nation, Hussein has moved to strengthen the Arab identity of his own very multiethnic country. This has led to forced assimilation, deportation, and genocide. And the Kurds have been Hussein's principal victims.

In 1986, the Kurdish leaders capitalized on a series of Iraqi setbacks in the war with Iran to stage a new rebellion. For Hussein, this was treason precisely at Iraq's moment of greatest peril, and it provided a convenient pretext to reshape Iraq as a more Arab state.

In 1987, I traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to assess how the Kurdish insurgency was affecting Iraq's prospects in the war with Iran. I was accompanied by Haywood Rankin, a political officer at the US embassy in Baghdad, and a heavy Iraqi military escort; we realized something was terribly wrong as we passed the last Arab town, Jalawla, and entered the Kurdish area.

There was nothing there. Villages and towns that showed on our map had disappeared. In a few places, we saw bulldozers parked near damaged houses. Other villages had already been reduced to rubble. In the effort to eradicate a millennia-old Kurdish presence, Iraqi forces had flattened cemeteries, burned orchards, and filled in wells. By 1990, Hussein's forces had obliterated more than 4,000 villages, depopulating rural Iraqi Kurdistan.

Some of the villagers were relocated to sprawling new settlements, called "victory cities" but bearing many resemblances to concentration camps. There, populations subsisted on meager Iraqi rations, were mostly unemployed, and remained under the watchful eye of the Iraqi security services.

These turned out to be the lucky Kurds. During the March 1991 rebellion that followed the Gulf War, the Kurds took over the local headquarters of the Iraqi secret police, the Baath Party, and the army. These yielded a trove of documents that the Kurds carted away to the mountains.

Jalal Talabani told me of the documents when I was in northern Iraq during the 1991 uprising. On a subsequent trip, he agreed to send them out of Iraq, and I arranged for 14 tons to be flown to Washington, where they entered the files of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Kurdish files contained copies of orders for a large-scale operation code-named al-anfal (the reference is to a Koranic verse interpreted by some as allowing Muslim warriors to plunder and ravage the infidel). The orders made large parts of Kurdistan free-fire zones, where any human present should be killed.

The documents record how these orders were carried out. In examining them, I was struck by the contrast between the banality of the records and the evil of the acts described.

In one tattered yellow folder, I found the interrogations of four shepherds who had been caught grazing their sheep in a forbidden area of Kurdistan. This was followed by a message instructing the secret police to carry out paragraph five of the Baath Party circular telegram for the north. Next came four death certificates and then receipts from family members as they claimed the bodies. In another case, a ledger book with a floral cover was used to record executions. The first entry listed 24 men, 34 women, and 54 children who were dispatched after surrendering to a special military unit.

The Iraqi security forces videotaped their executions and torture sessions. Initially, I supposed that this reflected a sadistic enjoyment, but after talking to Kurds and Arabs, I came to see it differently. Saddam Hussein has created a bureaucracy of killing. The executioners wanted to record their achievements to show the head office how well they were doing their jobs.

The Kurds have no friends but the mountains," goes an ancient Kurdish saying. In the past, the Iraqi Kurds have accepted help from Iran, Turkey, and Syria in their struggle with Baghdad. But they have never been under any illusions about the motives of these regional powers, all of which have large Kurdish populations and all of which oppose Kurdish nationalism.

The one country the Kurds have trusted is the United States - all too often to their sorrow. It is one reason why the Kurds now seek concrete commitments of US protection in the event of war and American support for their aspirations after it is over.

Henry Kissinger, national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations, is a household name in Kurdistan, remembered not as a global strategist but as the architect of a cynical double-cross of a Kurdish insurgency. In the early 1970s, the shah of Iran pushed the Kurds to break off autonomy talks with Hussein and resume a rebellion that had begun in 1961. At the shah's behest, Kissinger agreed to a CIA-run program of covert assistance to the Kurdish guerrillas, or peshmerga (literally, "those who face death"). While the Kurds didn't trust the shah, they were reassured by the American involvement, and in 1974 resumed their rebellion.

A year later, Hussein traded a boundary settlement sought by Iran for an end to Iranian (and US) support for the Kurds. The rebellion promptly collapsed, and tens of thousands of Kurds fled to Iran. (Some came to the United States, where they formed a potent lobby on Kurdish issues.) A US House committee recorded Kissinger's cavalier reaction to the ensuing suffering: "Covert action should not be confused with missionary work."

Sixteen years later, on February 15, 1991, President George H. W. Bush, then in the midst of the Gulf War, used a pep rally at the Raytheon plant in Andover, Massachusetts, to urge the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Hussein to step aside. The Kurds assumed he really meant it, and a few days after the Gulf War ended, they staged an uprising that took over the entire north of Iraq.

When I visited Kurdistan shortly thereafter, I found a people euphoric at their freedom, despite their peril from the Iraqi military. One night, I sat with Jalal Talabani as he spoke to the leading citizens of Dihok, a pleasant city of 350,000 snuggled into a valley not far from where Iraq joins Turkey and Syria. The men debated how to establish a Kurdish administration, rights for non-Kurdish minorities, and justice for those who had collaborated with Hussein's killing machine.

Later that night in Dihok, Talabani pressed me on the likelihood of American intervention to protect the Kurdish rebels. In a conversation punctuated by the explosion of incoming Iraqi artillery on a defenseless city, I could provide little hope.

Concerned that the rebellion's success might lead to the breakup of Iraq into a Kurdish state in the north and Shiite state in the south, which could destabilize the region, President Bush and his key advisers had already decided to leave the Kurds to their fate.

Apparently, it made no difference that this was a rebellion the president had called for, or that the Iraqis were crushing it with military helicopters that General Norman Schwarzkopf, the US commander, had with much swagger ("You fly, you die") promised to destroy.

The Kurds, who understood Hussein's regime better than George Bush, fled the cities before the Republican Guards moved in. As Talabani and I drove out of Dihok the morning it fell, we passed tens of thousands of refugees. It was Easter Sunday; I still remember the anguish in the voice of one young man who stuck his head into my commandeered Iraqi Army land cruiser, said, "George Bush is the devil," and quickly disappeared.

The Turkish president, Turgut Ozal, himself of part-Kurdish origin, refused to let the Kurds into Turkey. He did, however, allow television cameras to reach the Kurds, and the images of mass suffering shocked the world. The outrage forced Bush to intervene once again in Iraq, ultimately leading to the creation of a US-protected safe area for the Kurds in northern Iraq. By the end of 1991, forces loyal to Masood Barzani and Jalal Talabani had enlarged the Kurdish area to include the major cities of Irbil and Sulamanyeh.

By not intervening in support of the rebellion he had called for, George H. W. Bush placed a higher priority on the unity of Iraq than on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. Forced to rescue Kurds endangered by the uprising's collapse, Bush established the nucleus of the first de facto Kurdish state in modern history. The current President Bush now confronts the legacy of his father's inaction and actions. The existence of Kurdistan complicates planning for war and, even more, Bush's hope of creating a unified and democratic Iraq afterward.

Welcome to Kurdistan, Mr. Ambassador," Mohammed Ihsan, a Cabinet minister in Barzani's administration, greeted me as I returned to Dihok this summer.

Kurdistan today is more prosperous than it has ever been. Ihsan is one of many Kurds to describe these times as Kurdistan's golden age. In Dihok, Ihsan takes me to a superstore with a stunning array of fresh produce, the latest in electronic equipment, and racks of elegant suits from the world's best-known designers. We lunch at a newly built luxury hotel, where I check my e-mail at one of Kurdistan's ubiquitous Internet cafes. (Because UN trade sanctions also apply to the Kurdish-ruled part of Iraq, the server had to be smuggled in. Ihsan, a British-educated historian, told me he spent four days locked in a room with the manuals to get the Kurdistan Internet running.) Later we drove by brand-new palatial homes built by Kurdish businessmen just 2 miles from the front line with the Iraqi Army.

The countryside also looks different. Villages destroyed by Hussein in the 1980s have been rebuilt. Pine seedlings, planted by the Kurds with UN funding, are beginning to transform barren hillsides. In the 1980s, the depopulation of the countryside made Kurdistan prone to intense summertime dust storms; this summer, the once barren valleys glowed yellow as a bumper crop of wheat ripened.

I was struck by the number of villages built around the Catholic and Orthodox churches of Kurdistan's Chaldean and Assyrian minorities. Ihsan, whose portfolio includes human rights, took pride in underlining his government's commitment to tolerance as evidenced by the support given to restoring religious institutions.

Kurdistan has two governments, a legacy of a civil war fought between Barzani and Talabani in the mid-1990s. In 1992, Kurdistan had the only genuinely free elections ever held in Iraq, and they produced a tie between Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Complex power-sharing arrangements degenerated into fighting in a place with no experience of democratic compromise. Today, Talabani runs his version of the Kurdistan Regional Government from the eastern city of Sulamanyeh, while Barzani has his capital to the north in Irbil. The two administrations control territories of comparable size, each home to nearly 2 million people.

In 1998, Madeleine Albright, then the secretary of state, brokered a peace accord between the two Kurdish parties, and cooperation between them has gradually increased. On October 4, 2002, the two parties were able to reconvene the Kurdistan Regional Assembly, which though elected in 1992 had not met since 1995, to begin public discussion of a constitution for the whole Kurdistan region. And, today, the KDP and PUK governments compete primarily in how many services they provide their own people.

Barham Salih, the PUK prime minister, emphasizes how his government has built four times as many schools in the last 10 years as successive Iraqi regimes had built in the previous 70. Nerchivan Barzani, Masood's nephew and the KDP prime minister, points to the major public works projects undertaken by his government. These include an elegant reconstruction of the building housing the Kurdistan Assembly and the conversion of the vast Iraqi military complex in Irbil into a leafy park, complete with swimming pools. (In excavating for the pools, the Kurds came across the remains of hundreds of anfal victims, which were reburied in a local cemetery.)

Both governments have opened new medical schools, doubling the number of doctors in Kurdistan since the first class of physicians graduated in 1998. (The schools, whose faculties instruct in English, are accredited by the British Medical Association).

Both prime ministers point to the robust Kurdish media to buttress their claim to have created one of the freest societies in the region. Both the KDP and the PUK run satellite television networks, and there are numerous local television and radio stations. The print media are diverse, with publications ranging from Islamist to communist. While Iraqi television can be seen in large parts of Kurdistan, its "all-Saddam, all-the-time" programming ensures that no one watches.

With a school system that teaches in Kurdish and the rise of Kurdish media, Arabic is disappearing in the north. Even more pronounced is the disappearance of an Iraqi identity. After 11 years of freedom, the younger generation has no real memory of being Iraqi; for the older generation it is only a bad memory.

Pentagon planners are as concerned about the consequences of rapid collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime as they are about prolonged resistance. More than 80 percent of Iraq's people are Shiites, Kurds, Assyrians, or Chaldeans, religious and ethnic groups brutally suppressed by the regime. So Hussein's base is limited to part of the 20 percent that is Sunni Arab, and even there Hussein commands more fear than loyalty. If war comes, few may want to put their lives on the line in a losing cause.

Except in the north, where stable opposition governments already exist, there is no clear alternative to Hussein. In the mid-1990s, Washington supported the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of opposition groups, including the Kurds, headed by a charismatic and articulate banker, Ahmed Chalabi. While Chalabi still enjoys the support of influential deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz, the State Department and the CIA each have other favorites. As a result, the Iraqi opposition is in more disarray than ever, and Pentagon planners are desperately trying to figure out what they will do if Hussein falls before they are ready.

Barzani and Talabani are determined to settle Kurdistan's status before the regime changes. While Chalabi secured agreement in principle within the Iraqi National Congress as far back as 1992 for a Kurdish self-governing unit within a federal Iraq, Arabs and Kurds never agreed how much power would be allowed to the Kurdistan Regional Government. With the Iraqi National Congress in limbo, the Kurds intend to settle the issue of how power is divided between Baghdad and Kurdistan on their terms. Not surprisingly, they plan to give away virtually none of the independence they now enjoy.

In July, I had long conversations with both Barzani and Talabani about federalism. They see federalism as a "bottom up" system, in which Kurds and Arabs establish their own regional governments and then delegate limited powers to a central government. Because Arabs seem unwilling to agree to this concept, the two leaders have decided to make it a legal reality in Kurdistan by writing their own constitution.

Under the draft constitution prepared by Barzani's KDP and accepted in principle by Talabani, there will be a single Kurdistan Regional Government with its own elected assembly and president. The Kurdistan Regional Government would write its own laws, control the budget for the region, raise taxes, have its own police, run the region's schools and universities, and own the natural resources of the area. Most controversial, the Kurds intend to retain their militias as a Kurdistan self-defense force, a bit of insurance in case George Bush's dream of a democratic Iraq proves a chimera.

The Kurdish draft constitution would leave only a few powers to a central government in Baghdad. It would control foreign affairs, collect customs duties, and issue a currency. This is not much on which to build a common state of Kurds and Arabs. The Kurds do propose that they receive a proportionate share of Iraq's vast oil wealth, and the promise of cold cash may do the most to preserve a loose union with Iraq's Arabs.

The real question is how long Iraq can survive when such a sizable part of its population has (an entirely justified) antipathy to its existence. The Kurdish leaders insist they do not seek independence, but their actions and words say otherwise. In Sulamanyeh, I listened as the PUK prime minister, Barham Salih, insisted to a British television interviewer that he was not only a Kurd but also an Iraqi. "As long as I am condemned to live within these borders," he said, "I will be a loyal Iraqi."

Over the long term, holding Iraq together may be even more difficult than dealing with the consequences of the breakup. Instead of trying to marry an as yet unformed Arab administration with an existing Kurdistan government, President Bush may do as well to think about how to manage the separation of Arabs and Kurds, and in particular how to alleviate Turkey's concerns.

If United States planning goes awry in Iraq, it will probably be over Kirkuk. At the edge of the Mesopotamian plain, Kirkuk has been continuously inhabited for 3,000 years. Roman columns appear as architectural highlights in more recent buildings, and its impressive walled citadel is a maze of narrow winding streets passing by crumbling palaces and ancient archways. Considered by many Kurds as their Jerusalem, Kirkuk would become the capital of Kurdistan under the new constitution.

Saddam Hussein still controls Kirkuk, and over the last decade he has been expelling the city's Kurds to the Kurdish-controlled region and settling Arabs in their houses. Kirkuk is also home to a sizable Turcoman population. The Turcomans are ethnic Turks who were left behind in Iraq when the Ottoman Empire collapsed after World War I. As the end game approaches in Iraq, Turkey has developed a keen interest in their fate.

The Kurdish attachment to Kirkuk is not just sentimental. Kirkuk sits on Iraq's oldest producing oil field, one with 10 billion barrels of proven reserves. Currently, the Kurds control only a few minor producing oil wells. Kirkuk's oil would give the Kurds the means to establish an economically viable state. The Kurdish leaders understand this, but so do the Turkish general staff and the Iraqi Arabs.

Kirkuk could explode in many different ways. Both the PUK and the KDP might be tempted to seize the city as Hussein's authority crumbles. Although the two parties talk of a coordinated military strategy, they could easily fall out over who gets control of this richest of Kurdish territories. Iraq's Arabs would be reluctant to surrender Kirkuk, and a successor regime in Baghdad might fight to get it back.

Most ominously, Turkey has proclaimed Kirkuk one of its two red lines in Iraq. If the Kurds take Kirkuk, Turkey says it will intervene militarily to stop them. (The other Turkish red line triggering intervention would be if the Kurds declared independence.) Even before any military campaign against Hussein were finished, today's Bush administration might see fighting between its most important ally in the region and its most important friend in Iraq.

Leaked Pentagon war plans indicate that the United States might deploy forces to the north so as to forestall any Turkish military intervention. This could defuse the Kirkuk issue for the short term. Over a somewhat longer period, there would be a desperate need for intensive diplomacy aimed at structuring a deal among Arabs, Kurds, and Turcomans that creates a process to resolve the city's future. Since all three groups assert they are Kirkuk's largest nationality, a census (or referendum) could be held to decide if the city should join Kurdistan, remain in Arab Iraq, or have some third status. Of course, any census or other process would have to exclude Arabs imported to replace deported Kurds. Whatever the process, the Kurds would have to agree in exchange not to take the city militarily, and Turkey would have to agree not to intervene.

Every day I say a prayer for Saddam Hussein's long life," a Kurdish shopkeeper told me, "and when he dies, I pray he is tortured for all eternity." Like many Kurds, the man lost family to Hussein's executioners in the 1980s. But he expressed a widespread anxiety about how war, and what follows, may affect Kurdistan's golden age. If war comes, Saddam Hussein may wish to use his weapons of mass destruction against the United States, but he has neither the aircraft nor the missiles to reach American soil. He can hit Kurdistan, and the Kurds know it.

But the Kurds worry not just about their enemy, Hussein, but also about their friend, the United States. The Turkish general staff recently put out word that in the event of war, they would send troops up to 60 miles inside Iraq to protect Kurdish refugees. Since the area in question is controlled by the two Kurdistan regional governments and does not have any Kurds needing protection, the Turkish initiative is transparently intended to intimidate the Kurds.

The Kurds count on the United States to restrain Turkey, as well as to defend them from Hussein's vengeance. But they realize that as compared with NATO ally Turkey, they count for little in America's larger strategic calculus. They appeal, therefore, to America's conscience. From Henry Kissinger's betrayal of their rebellion in the 1970s to George H. W. Bush's decision to snub the 1991 uprising, they have seen the cynical side of US foreign policy.

From George H. W. Bush's son, they hope for better. They regard Bush as a man with a strong (and often articulated) sense of good and evil. They hope he will grasp the justice of their cause.

George W. Bush says he wants a democratic and unified Iraq to follow a deposed Saddam Hussein. Some in his administration suggest that the United States would re-create Iraq (as it did Germany after World War II) as a model Arab democracy. Having endured genocide and gas from Hussein and repression from his predecessors, the Kurds want neither an Arab Iraq nor a unified one.

A just peace, for the Kurds, is one in which they continue to govern their own land.

Peter W. Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, is now a professor of national-security studies at the National War College in Washington, D.C.